A Wish List for the 114th Congress to Consider

By Caleph B. Wilson, Ph.D., a biomedical researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, logistics director of the National Science Policy Group, science communicator and STEM outreach advocate. Follow him on Twitter as @HeyDrWilson.

CalephWith the 114th Congress underway, the scientific community is looking forward to sharing new research breakthroughs and advocating for STEM during a series of congressional visits to Capitol Hill. In some instances, scientists and trainees will assist writing congressional briefs and give testimony to House and Senate committees on science, technology and health.

While Congress is considering science policy initiatives, positions and funding, there are a few things in the early-career scientist “wish list” that would make improvements and maintain the United States’ leading position in the scientific enterprise.

Throughout 2014, early-career scientists discussed specific issues in science policy groups, on social media and in articles that need to be addressed. These are some of the highlights of the conversations that have been put in a “Wish List” that hopefully Congress and policymakers will strongly consider.

  • National Science Foundation (NSF) and National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding that is predictable and keeps pace with inflation.

In the early 1990s, the NIH budget increased dramatically. However, over the last 10 years the NIH budget has flat-lined and even decreased at times. Unfortunately, the budget has not kept pace with inflation and rising costs of executing experiments. With changes in the economy and the sweeping budget cuts that came in with sequestration, government agencies, institutions and investigators can better plan with predictable budget appropriations that keep pace with scientific opportunity.

  • Increased trainee base pay that encourages doctorate level scientists to remain in the research enterprise.

The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) recently published a review of postdoctoral training and put forward recommendations to improve the trainee experience. Major among the recommendations was to increase the National Research Service Award (NRSA) base pay for postdocs with one year or less of experience to $50,000 (current base pay is $42,000). Increased pay scales would likely have the added impact of making highly sought postdoctoral openings even more competitive.

  • Strongly encourage individual development plans to be widely instituted at the undergrad and graduate student educational levels.

Career planning is critical to smoothly transitioning into and out of the trainee period. The earlier career preparation begins, the clearer the path that trainees have to navigate. This is especially important now that funders like the NIH are looking to diversify trainee career paths. An Individual Development Plan (IDP) that trainees, mentors and programs can use as a communication and expectation guide will ensure that the tax payer investment in education and training results in rapid employment after the training period.

  • Incentivize graduate programs admissions and faculty search committees to hire under-represented minority candidates in order to keep early-career scientists in the STEM pipeline.

Federal research agencies have made a significant investment in diversifying the research pipeline, and there have been improvements at the trainee level. However, the numbers are not reflective of the population demographics. In order to get the most of the tax payer investment, policymakers should find ways to incentivize graduate programs and faculty hiring committee efforts to diversify. A recent large scale study of new doctoral graduates shows that increases in diversity of the STEM pipeline have not been mirrored in tenure track faculty hires. Further, under-represented minority candidates are opting to leave the scientific bench. Funders should work with institutions to ensure that effective “junction points” are added to the STEM pipeline to ensure that highly qualified scientists remain interested in academic research.

  • Include more opportunities for graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and assistant professors to take part in science policy formulation.

The last few years have seen the rapid growth of science society-run policy fellowships, trainee led science policy groups and regular visits to state and federal governments by scientists. These activities have resulted in more scientists openly and consistently communicating about science policy. The next phase should include increased opportunities for trainees and new professors to be at the table when science policy decisions are made.

I encourage citizens, undergraduates, graduate students and faculty to continue their conversations. More importantly, reach out to their respective congressional delegations to share their positions on science issues.

The above wish list can serve as a conversation guide for trainees, scientists and policymakers. Through consistent engagement and relationship building, all stake holders can effectively work together to ensure that the U.S. scientific enterprise maintains its place as the leader in STEM research and development.

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